Rowan Gardiner was taking out the trash when he noticed the moving van next door. He paused, holding the trash lid in one hand and the garbage in the other. Men with work gloves were moving in and out with boxes. They worked fast, but were not clumsy. As if each box was precious.
Rowan dropped the garbage in the bin and returned inside. From his living room window, he had a better view of the house next door. He was curious about who his new neighbour could be. Afterall, the house had been vacant for nearly a year after the Johnsons decided to move closer to the city.
He saw nothing immediately, just a lot of boxes on polished wood floors. This made him straighten. Had someone been inside fixing it up and he hadn’t noticed? He worked from home most of the time. He noticed things that varied from routine. It disturbed him that he hadn’t noticed possible activity so close to him. Lanette hadn’t told him that someone had bought the place either. She was normally good at giving him the heads up about these things.
Thinking of Lanette, he left the window in search of his cordless house phone.
The house was mostly glass and wood, one of those prefab jobs that seemed to be getting more popular these days. It was one of the things that had bothered him so much that he had chosen to abandon one part of the house in preference of the other side so that he would not have to see so much of what was happening at his neighbour’s house.
Yet here he was, trying to use it to spy, and with spectacular failure. All Lanette had said was that the new owner of the house next door was a young widow. A private woman who had moved there to be away from prying eyes.
Yet why had she chosen a glass house? According to Lanette, the raised deck at the back overlooking the lake did the trick. She had fallen in love with the view.
It was late before he walked out on his back porch. Emma, his daughter, was spending the weekend with her mother therefore he had the house to himself. The sun was setting and the sky was beautiful in oranges, pinks and greys. He popped open the bottle of cold beer and sat on his grandfather’s rickety old chair, just about ready to unwind and let go.
Something in the reeds caught his eye. He leaned forward to get a closer look. The neighbour’s house had a walkway that led a few metres over the water so one could moor a boat. There was no boat there now. What there was, was a woman. A woman sitting on a stool in front of an easel, her eyes to the horizon, painting furiously. She sat so straight, yet her hands moved like an overly excited creature, as if afraid to miss a thing, or a moment.
Rowan sat transfixed by the sight. He did not see such oddness often. It was a calm night, but it was cool. Yet all she wore was a slip, barely covering her. Bones moved against her skin as if in agony. Her elegant neck took on a sinister form in his confused mind.
Her head was bald, making her look more creature than woman. Right in the centre of her head was the letter D, tattooed in black ink.
Rowan turned on the faucet and turned it back off one more time. There was no drip this time. He smiled. That was done. On to the bathroom.
“Do my eyes deceive me? Do i not hear a drip for the first time in six months?” Ashley asked. Her father looked surprised.
“Was it that long?”
“Yeah. You were gone a lot,” said the perky fourteen year old. He looked down at her, his eyes puzzled. “What?”
“Are you telling me off?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Am i?”
“Am i supposed to take that?” he asked. She leaned against the sink and seemed to ponder his words. Then she shrugged.
“I think you’re supposed to. You have no choice,” she said.
“When did you get so grown up?”
“When you spent the last six months working on those new buildings that will never sell.”
“Hey! Who says that?”
“Ah, everybody. Dah!” she said. He looked more surprised.
“Really? They say that? Wow. Kinda harsh, don’t you think?”
“Why? We all know it’s a recession.”
“What do you know about the recession, young lady? And when did you get so informed. I sure didn’t clue you in.”
“I listen. People talk, people complain. I just listen. It’s just so interesting, i guess. Lots of folks are so sad though. It’s weird to see it,” she said. Now he looked concerned.
“Hey, Ash. You know you have nothing to worry about, right? I can take care of us.”
“I know.” Her cherubic face smiled and he felt sadder.
“I just don’t want you to start worrying about everybody. It’s good to care, don’t get me wrong, but you’re just a kid, my kid. You stay smart and stay sharp, and you don’t worry about this family. You let me take care of that,” he said.
“Fine, but i’m fourteen. I’m almost not a kid anymore.”
“Who says!” he exclaimed.
The falling lid of a trash can alerted them to their neighbours’s movements. They both walked out on to the porch to see what the noise was about. All they saw was old Mrs Wasikowska putting in the trash and replacing the lid. She walked back into the glass house mumbling to herself. Neither father nor daughter moved immediately.
“Two weeks ago, i think. Mrs Wasikowska cleans for her a few days a week.”
“Did you get a glimpse yet? Does she come out?” he asked.
“Not that i’ve seen. I tried to sneak a peek. I went over one afternoon when a car came up the drive.”
“Ash!” He looked at her impatiently but fondly. “That’s intrusive. You should know better.”
“I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. We are her closest neighbours. It’s kinda creepy that she hides all the time, don’t you think so, daddy?”
“Doesn’t matter what i think, you will not spy on our neighbour,” he said, remembering the few times he’d tried to get a look in. “Look, since you’re up i’ll make breakfast. Go over and invite her to join us.”
“Yeah. Let’s be neighbourly and mature about it. Go, child, before i change my mind,” he said. She did not think twice. She launched herself off the porch, her short blond bob bouncing about her, and she made her way across the grass to the house next door.
She returned a few minutes later, her face down and the excited exuberance clearly missing. Her father plated out scrambled eggs and put out a row of toast as she entered.
“She’s not coming,” she said. He raised a brow in understanding.
“Did she say why?” he asked.
“She didn’t. Mrs Wasikowska did. She unavailable. She says sorry though.”
“You mean Mrs Wasikowska did. You did not actually see our neighbour.”
“No,” she said. He ruffled her hair and pulled out a seat for her.
“It’s her loss, i’d say. Come, sit, and be fed.”
“I’m not so hungry anymore, dad.”
“Yes, you are. We will not let someone we’ve never met or seen ruin our day. I’m back home full time now. I’ve got things to fix up here, and i’ve got you to look after. We will have an excellent summer, and i’ll be damned if i’ll let you frown through it,” he said. She reached for a piece of toast and the butter.
“Yeah, yeah, dad, don’t announce. I got it. You’re here, we’ll hang out. I get it,” she said without looking up.
Rowan left the radio on as he walked out the back of the house with a fishing rod. Ashley was gone for the evening, off to the movies with friends but supervised by a parent. He had decided earlier that the bathroom needed a complete overhaul. It meant that he would spend the summer fixing up his house. It was not falling apart precisely, but it was dated. He’d built it years ago for himself and his wife Michelle, when things had been good and he was an idealistic romantic youth. He’d figured that it was the ultimate gesture of love, building their home with his bare hands.
Five years ago she went off with Ashley’s pediatrician, a dashing doctor with family money, no hair and flashy accessories. Rowan had never understood, not really. He still found it difficult to come to terms with what had gone wrong. The only thing he’d been grateful for about the whole thing was that she’d been willing to share custody of their daughter. Asheley had eventually seen through that though, when Michelle went on more trips with her wealthy husband and did not seem inclined to keep her promises to her daughter.
So he stayed over protective of his only child, and made sure to devote his attention to her so that she would never doubt that she was loved.
He made his way down the steps of the back porch. He had consciously chosen not to overly make up his access to the river, although he’d had a sort of guard up when Ashley had been a child so that she would not fall in and be lost. Now the steps led to a rocky base with a shallow pool where he could wade. He did so now to get to a raised part of the rocks where he could sit and fish quietly. He was barely there five minutes when a sound caught his eye. He looked over to his neighbour’s house. There was someone at the end of the board walk, kneeling with one hand in the water. He registered a slender hand, tanned gold. When the hand came out and shook off the water, he noted a small wrist with a bracelet of white beads. The reeds obscured the rest of her. He did not hesitate. He stood and waded out and back to the house.
He got rid of his rubber pants and walked off the porch and on to the grass that separated them. Her backyard and his backyard lined up but he could only ever see anything when he was on the porch, it being raised and all. He got an impression of a woman heading back inside the house so he hurried. He was at the bottom of her porch just as she was about to enter the house.
“Hey!” he exclaimed. She whirled around in alarm, her mouth parting with surprise.
He straightened immediately. The first thing he noted was that she was not bald anymore. And she was not as thin as had been suggested that first day. That woman had seemed like a dream, a wraith that just did not seem real.
This woman was a vision. The tan he thought he’d seen was not that at all. She was that colour all over, the daughter of parents of different races. Her hair was black, short, full, curling beautifully. Her eyes were wide, but that could be because she was staring at him so petrified. Her brows were thick and sat so comfortably in the clearest face imaginable.
He was speechless, and more than just a little embarrassed that he’d been so eager to be angry at her for being so anti social. There he was, tongue tied and idiotic, while she clearly debated how fast she could out run him to the phone and call for help.
“I’m your neighbour, Rowan. My daughter was over here a few days ago to ask you over for breakfast. You were busy,” he said. She seemed to calm down as he spoke, of which he was glad. He was dearly regretting not using the front door. “I saw you while i was fishing. I thought you might need some help. Did you lose something in the water?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. It was a whisper, barely a sound. She wanted him to go away, he was sure of it. He was just about ready to do that.
“I’m a carpenter. I mean, i do lots of odd jobs and i work the the local construction guys when they need some expertise. Don’t take this the wrong way, but our houses are so close and i can’t help but notice things. It seems you need some work done around the place. I can help. Not me, personanlly, i wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea. I know people, good workers who’d be glad of the extra cash. And they’d do a solid job,” he said. She did not reply, but her eyes never left him. They were suspicious, although not overly hostile anymore. “I’ll get going. My daughter’s Ashley, you’ve probably seen her out your window. Cute little thing with blond hair. Be nice to her. And if you need anything, please just pop over, or yell, or something. Good day,” he said as he left.
He caught his breath only half way back to his house. He felt as if he’d just been winded by a sucker punch to the belly. Her face seemed ingrained in his mind and he could not let it go. Even then, it did not seem real.